“No Excuses” Charter Schools Confront High Bar of Expectations as Graduates Enter College in Record Numbers

Robert Pondiscio  (718) 514-0764  rpondiscio@aol.com
Janice B. Riddell (203) 912-8675 janice_riddell@hks.harvard.edu, External Relations, Education Next

“No Excuses” Charter Schools Confront High Bar of Expectations as Graduates Enter College in Record Numbers

KIPP and others focus on factors critical to raising their students’ college-completion rates

CAMBRIDGE, MA— By 2015, more than 10,000 students from major “No Excuses” charter-schools will be on college campuses across the United States in contrast to the current year, in which the cohort numbers around 1,000.  This large vanguard of students will test the recipe that high-expectations charters, including KIPP, Achievement First, YES Prep, Uncommon Schools, Mastery, Aspire, and others have used to prepare low-income and minority students for success in college.

The effort to launch first-generation, low-income black and Hispanic kids successfully into the world with college degrees in hand will offer something of a referendum on the “No Excuses” model, says author Robert Pondiscio.  The article, “ ‘No Excuses’ Kids Go To College,” will appear in the Spring 2013 issue of Education Next, and is currently available online at www.educationnext.org

In his analysis, Pondiscio writes that these schools all share a set of familiar characteristics:  more and longer school days, a college prep curriculum for all students, strict behavioral and disciplinary codes, and a strong focus on building a common, high-intensity school culture.  The signature feature of these charters is high behavioral and academic expectations for all students, the vast majority of whom are low-income, urban black and Hispanic kids.  For years, a central motif of No Excuses schools has been their college acceptance rates.  Houston-based YES Prep, for example, has made much of the fact that 100 percent of its graduating seniors have been accepted to college.

However, in 2011 KIPP released its College Completion Report, which changed the existing narrative from “college acceptance” to “college completion.”  The report was notable for its transparency, and revealed that only 33 percent of the earliest cohorts of KIPP middle school students graduated from college within six years.  While this rate is four times the 8 percent average college completion rate of low-income black and Hispanic students and slightly higher than the figure (31%) for all U.S. students, it is still considerably below KIPP’s goal of seeing 75 percent of their graduates earn a four-year college degree—comparable to the rate at which top-income quartile students graduate.

The report began a general conversation around how much accountability should be attributed to a student’s K-12 education, to his or her college, or to the students themselves.  It also has spurred some 20 colleges, such as Pennsylvania’s Franklin and Marshall (F&M) to develop programs to support “first-gen” students, working in collaboration with KIPP.  Once admitted, often after a three-week summer program, students are placed in a mentoring program, where they meet in groups one or two hours each week.  “It is not an easy or natural transition to college for the students urban charters serve,” notes Pondiscio.  “Feeling comfortable enough to go to professors’ office hours and not feeling out of place among other students are challenges to be overcome.”  The colleges are also engaged in a larger effort to connect high performing charters to leading liberal arts colleges.

Scholars and practitioners also are increasingly focused on the non-academic traits college graduates need, such as grit, self-control and optimism.  This leads to unresolved questions about whether the No Excuses graduates have what it takes to thrive once they get to college and what steps might be taken to strengthen elements of the No Excuses approach.  Not every college is prepared, interested, or has the resources to go the extra mile to smooth the college transition for low-income kids of color.  There is also some thinking that if No Excuses schools are successful in turning out academically prepared graduates with “grit,” shouldn’t these students need less support, not more, on college campuses?

But No Excuses charters are prepared to build a deep, broad safety net for these kids who don’t have the baseline expectation that comes from being in a well-off and well-educated family, where kids have grown up “assuming” they would go to college.

About the Author

Robert Pondiscio is a former South Bronx 5th grade teacher and the executive director of Citizenship First, a civic education initiative.  He is available for interviews.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform.  Other collaborating institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.  For more information about Education Next, please visit:  www.educationnext.org.

For more information on the Program on Education Policy and Governance contact Antonio Wendland at 617-495-7976, pepg_administrator@hks.harvard.edu, or visit www.hks.harvard.edu/pepg.

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